Robert R. Williams
Robert R. Williams pressed his wife's washing machine into service as a centrifuge to begin his research on the molecular structure of vitamin B1.
By the 1880s suspicions that beriberi was in some way connected to diet began to emerge. A Japanese naval doctor proposed a connection between the diet of Japanese sailors, which consisted almost entirely of polished white rice, and the high incidence of beriberi among them. Acting on his hypothesis, he ordered sailors to increase their intake of vegetables, barley, fish, and meat. Within a decade, beriberi had been all but eliminated in the ranks of the Japanese navy. During the same period, a Dutch physician working in Java conducted experiments on chickens that demonstrated beriberi could be induced in animals that were fed a diet consisting exclusively of polished rice, whereas chickens fed unpolished (brown) rice remained healthy.
Some years later and a few islands over, in Manila, Williams was enlisted by the U.S. Bureau of Science to research the theory that beriberi was caused by a nutritional deficiency and to ascertain the substance in unpolished rice that apparently combated the disease. Williams, the son of a missionary, was born in India; after earning his master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago, he decided to return to Southeast Asia and found employment with the Bureau in the Philippines. Unable to determine the substance in brown rice that prevented beriberi, however, he came back to the United States.
Visit Chemistry in History to learn more about Robert R. Williams’s work to elucidate the structure of vitamin B1.
Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation